Monday, May 25, 2009

The Motif in "To a Butterfly"

Wordsworth was at the forefront of romanticism. He wrote fervently about nature, and the passionate beauty within the world from all creatures. His "To a Butterfly" poem (divided into two parts, which made it difficult to search for the whole selection) is a perfect example of his romanticism.

The first two stanzas of the poem are about the speaker observing a butterfly in his family's garden, and inviting him to stay. "Here lodge as in a sanctuary" the speaker tells the delicate creature. He is fascinated by him. In the second part of the poem, there is a shift, or a volta. It is less observant, and more emotional, as if he doesn't want the energy the butterfly has brought to leave him. The speaker begins to associate the butterfly with his childhood. "Dead times revive in thee," he tells the butterfly. In the final stanza, the speaker remembers the butterflies of his childhood.

That was a somewhat vague summary, but it gets the point of the short poem across. For in this four stanza Wordsworth work, the greatest themes that the motif of butterflies are associated with appear. It's a handy poem to use as an example when delving into the motif for the first time.

I think the most prominent way that the appearance of a butterfly is used in this poem is to show transition, and the nostalgia that comes with it. In the poem, the speaker is reminded of his childhood when he observes the butterfly. "We'll talk of sunshine and of song, And summer days, when we were young..." he tells the butterfly. There is longing in this stanza for a time gone by, directly related to the brilliance and magic of childhood. The longing is mostly for the memory of the time gone by, and the speaker begs the butterfly to stay so that he can hold on to the reminder of the innocence and magic of his childhood. In the second stanza, the speaker reflects upon the endless hours of his days as a child. In the fourth, he comments on the intrigue of a butterfly hunt. The appearance of the butterfly shows his nostalgia after the metamorphosis from child to adult because the butterfly acts as a catalyst to his memory.

It is the direct reference to childhood in the poem that reminded me of the way butterflies are used to show innocence and purity, two childhood attributes. Butterflies make a great first science lesson to young children because of their great metamorphosis. They are very impressionable. The curious case of changing from caterpillar to butterfly is intriguing and fantasy-like. I think that's why they make such a great motif to reference innocence and other childhood characteristics, the fascination with them begins in childhood. The thrill of a fuzzy caterpillar and the excitement of the bright creation that springs from the cocoon entices us to further observe butterflies. We know that Nabokov loved them, as did Wordsworth. And because an interest in butterflies usually begins in elementary school (nowadays, many elementary school folders and binders are covered in fuzzy or glittering butterflies) they are often associated with that age. Add this to the frailty and fairy-like quality of butterflies, like the delicate limbs of a child, and the motif becomes a direct relation to childhood and innocence.

Innocence... this part of the motif is better seen in Lolita. But the way Wordsworth uses butterflies to show nostalgia for childhood in this poem is essential in further explicating the way the motif is used.

(And now that we are done with this poem, it is time for bigger and better things.)

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